Here is what a federal junk food tax would look like

Here is what a federal junk food tax would look like
© Getty Images

Taxes on products that cause harm remain an evidence-based public health tool to discourage unhealthy behaviors. In the case of soda or junk food taxes, to reduce the consumption of unhealthy foods and beverages.

While local taxes on soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages are rapidly growing in popularity and political acceptance, the idea of a national soda or junk food tax has not yet gained political traction. Yet, a federal junk food tax could have far broader effects than local taxes by potentially reducing the disease burden that results from poor diets. 

ADVERTISEMENT
Other countries, including Mexico and Hungary, have introduced national junk food taxes with impressive results. But what would a junk food tax in the United States look like? How would we categorize foods to be taxed, and what would the appropriate taxing mechanism would be?

 

To begin to answer these key policy questions, I teamed up with researchers at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University; our findings were published last week in the American Journal of Public Health.

We examined prior scientific literature on junk food taxes, bills and laws from the U.S. and other countries on categorizing foods for junk food and sugar-sweetened beverage tax purposes, and U.S. federal taxing and administrative mechanisms. We then analyzed potential differences by tax purpose and type.

Our research team identified three common methods of classifying foods: by product category (such as soda or candy), specific nutrients, or a combined approach. The most frequently targeted categories were sugar-sweetened beverages, candy, processed meat products, and sweet and salty snacks, and the most frequently targeted nutrient was sugar.

Based on these findings, we recommend taxing junk food based on product category (e.g. candy, sugar-sweetened beverages) or a category-plus-nutrient approach (e.g. snacks with a specific sugar content). We also identified support for a graduated taxation strategy, where the tax increases as the nutritional quality of the food decreases — for instance, as the sugar increases, the tax increases.

We also examined U.S. federal taxing mechanisms and the tax code to determine what type of tax — sales or excise — would be the most administratively feasible.

The U.S. federal government does not have sales taxes, which are paid by the consumer, but it does administer dozens of excise taxes, which are generally charged on the manufacture or sale of goods.

U.S. tax bills and laws with a nutritional purpose and junk food taxes in Hungary and Mexico overwhelmingly use excise taxes. U.S. federal alcohol taxes offer a particularly useful model that could be adopted for junk food taxes.

Alcohol excise taxes — paid by the manufacturer — are based on ingredient levels and processing, and in the case of wine, increase along with the amount of alcohol in the product.

Using an excise tax paid by junk food manufacturers would be the most beneficial way to implement a federal junk food tax. A key benefit: food companies would be incentivized to reformulate their products if the nutrition criteria are incorporated into the tax.

Our research evaluated the legal and administrative feasibility of a federal junk food tax, not the political feasibility. Given the current political climate, the creation of a nationwide junk food tax seems unlikely. However, compared with legal or administrative feasibility, political appetite for an issue can evolve quickly — and those of us in public health can be ready with an evidence-based model for a junk food tax that is viable.

Jennifer L. Pomeranz, JD, MPH, is a public health lawyer and an assistant professor of public health policy and management at NYU College of Global Public Health.